Report & Essay

CIRCA 1969: THE DEATH OF THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT An Open letter to Philip Ochieng from Taban lo Liyong


Dear Philip,
It is 40 years since we had the English Department revolutionised into the Literature Department. That was in 1969. And, unless Nairobi University’s Literature Department, Linguistics and African Languages Department, the French sub-department (it was already a sub even 40 years ago) and the Chinese Confucius Centre want to wait to tell the tale after 50 years have passed so that they can celebrate a Golden Jubilee, I think the 40th anniversary is a good enough time to celebrate.
James Ngugi – as he was then known – was the conceiver and main mover of the project - I was the secretary and had the administrative know–how to co-ordinate the process. Professor Alan Bethwell Ogot, the then Dean of Faculty of Arts, was the anchor man. Indeed, without his backing and support we could not have succeeded, let alone ventured out. Jimmy Stewart, the then Acting Head of the English Department, was less a foil than a collaborator in our endeavour. Professor of African Languages, Professor Wilfred Whiteley had much know–how. And he did contribute. Dr. Gideon Were and Dr. John Okumu were helpful, as was Okot p’Bitek when in town from his assignment in Kisumu Extra-Mural, and Jonathan Kariara, Parsali Likimani and you, yourself – Philip Ochieng.
And finally, the Faculty of Arts adopted the proposal. After the Board adopted it, the Council of Nairobi University made it its own institutional document. The paper does not belong to Ngugi, Taban or Owor Anyumba - its presenters to the Faculty of Arts Board.
As such, it is up to the departments listed above, or the Faculty, if it feels that the move to decolonize literary studies in African Universities, beginning with and from Nairobi University, Kenya, was significant enough, to mark it through an act of remembrance.
The document called for the transformation from the then Department for the teaching of English Language and Literature – that was the primary raison d`etre of the department then - to the study of the universal academic discipline of Literature in an East African setting, both Oral and Written, albeit still taught in and through the English language, on the one hand; then similar things in and through French language, from Franco-phone Africa.
If we had envisaged the teaching of literatures written in African languages, then the point was mooted. For, apart from Kiswahili and Kikuyu, no African language was taught in the secondary school where the universities drew their students from. So until that time comes there is no point in saying Dholuo or Giriama literatures should be taught in Moi or Maseno University.
Apartheid South Africa helped preserve African languages and cultures to survive and thrive. To justify the existence of Afrikaans (their African version of Dutch) they also had to advocate the existence of other languages and cultures within the Union. Thus, in the whole of Africa, Apartheid South Africa is the only regime that promoted African languages and culture. Sometimes your enemy’s solution of his problems may also help you achieve your preferred goals.
Africa’s major colonisers – the English and the French – had spread their language, culture, and influence sufficiently deep enough to have induced African creative writers to produce literary works of appreciable merit – linguistically and technically – to merit academic study in university departments. Already then we had writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Okot p`Bitek, and James Ngugi published in the English language category. Already we had Leopold Sedar Senghor, Ousmane Sembene, Mongo Beti, Camara Laye, Muamadu Kane, Ferdinand Oyono, and Mariama Ba from the French language category.
The above had oeuvres of high creative level. We also wanted a homely course called “East African Literature and its Cultural/Social Bases”. Literature is not written in a vacuum. And we wanted to make the connection between the societies described and from whose culture the works arose and the texts that got produced.
The major genres in which Africans had already produced significant texts, like drama, poetry, and the novel were also taught. Perhaps some of the texts we chose to use were below par. But we had to teach them anyway as negative examples. We concentrated more on the subject matter and pointed out the weakness of the text’s technical composition. This is how I dealt with Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman, then the rave of Nairobi city.
Karl Marx’s contributions in the analysis of societies, their sources of wealth and poverty, and impacts on the ordinary or working class were also studied. This was dear to Ngugi`s socialist heart.
We regarded highly other worlds’ major literary producers and their works and the vantage points from which they had observed humanity. Examples are William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Miguel Garcia, Moliere, Anton Chekhov, Ibsen, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, etc. and we made room for them in the syllabus. After all, literary studies are not only the study of an imaginative product in a language, but also the exploration and discussion of the human condition in the language of the countries of the writers: 
The tragedy of King Lear and his daughters, of Oedipus and his family, of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian aristocracy, of Moliere’s laughably poignant presentations do enlarge the students’ understanding of the world, of human beings and their conditions in it. Not only that, the story is the artifact through which a writer presents the drama of life, through a tale, a parable, an allegory, or symbolic work. So looking at the story superficially gives one the entre, surface value and pleasure; the overtly presented fable and its histrionics and not the deeper meaning which requires an initiated connoisseur to interpret. The deeper meaning, the interpretation of life and life’s meaning which the author presented as Jesus would have through his parables, or Prophet Isaiah would have, through his prophecies of long ago in the Old Testament would require an Apostle Philip from the Sudan to interpret to Candaces’ financial caretakers.
To a large extent, literary works explore and present themes from philosophy’s territory through allegories and tales and symbolisms. Most times they enlarge the philosophical message, bringing out the hidden implications, updating the older perceptions and showing through a family’s sage how the philosopher’s end of the story is the beginning of an old man’s dilemma or tragedy or comedy. So perhaps creative writers operating at the level of philosophising do not only share turf but may be more philosophical having the skills to dramatise and its method of presentation and sharing the philosopher’s territory.
Regrettably, most African creative works so far are produced in the realistic mode rather than the symbolic. Within the symbolic mode of creativity at least there are Camara Laye’s Radiance of the King, and Daniachu Worku’s The Thirteenth Sun. In despair for not being understood, my Iowa Writers Workshop fellow student from Ethiopia, Daniachu Worku, might have committed suicide in his lonely Addis Ababa flat. As for Camara Laye, though he created in symbolic mode, with Clarence the main character of The Radiance of the King, a book not yet understood by most critics, he was still human enough to buy presents from Mainz for his daughters then in Paris the year we shared a room with him, 1979.
We also had a course called “Literary Criticism”. I think we should have emphasized "Literary Studies: Understanding of Literary Products and Literary Discussion" which go much deeper than mere ‘criticism’. For ‘criticism’ is also the name, daily reporters of first nights at the theatre do as well as introducers of new books in the society pages of newspapers. It belittles literature if these are also accepted as serious materials for academic studies. They are cursory and superficial. Yet I understand some of our universities promote their staff to professorships through the strength of their newspaper articles.
(How many of my former students who now teach in Kenyan universities understand the new field of New Literary Theory? When I was in the University of Venda I taught it to South African students. And I was satisfied with the 5 questions you had to subject each literary theory to answer in order for it to qualify as a new literary theory. They covered most fields a work of literature is created to serve.) 
But the staff we had and those we later recruited to launch the new courses did not have the credentials or the academic backgrounds that would have qualified them to teach the courses. No university in the world had taught the courses we launched. So nobody was qualified, strictly speaking, to teach our new courses or the old ones we had redesigned. Most of our staff did not know how to design courses either, having taught (or been taught) courses imported wholesale from London for the colonial university colleges all over the British Empire/Commonwealth all their life. 
The result is that Nairobi University’s Department of Literature cannot even now boast of having produced more than one, and only one, fully fledged and competent discussant of literary works to a universal standard: Simon Gikandi, of the University of Michigan.
If only Simon Gikandi could be cloned! And then distributed to all Kenyan University departments of literature!
And, because of the dearth of such discussants, we have not had much light shed on our burgeoning writers’ works, or much help or guidance given to the up-coming writers in honing their skills. Because our universities departments of literature have failed to provide the leadership, young writers all over Africa are doing the best they can to become writers through projects like Femrite – Feminine Writers -- in Uganda, and Kwani? and PEN in Kenya. Literary magazines that existed in each East African University’s Literature Departments, or each capital city or those launched proudly by select publishing firms have all died out. Popular magazines have proliferated. Why there are no marriages between the glamorous and the intellectual babies I do not know.
Perhaps the Literature Departments in Eastern Africa should be made to turn over the teaching of their courses and supervision of their students to some reputable American Universities whilst their senior staff enroll for postdoctoral studies, or audits of the courses they have been teaching locally in universities like Columbia, Harvard, Yale or California? 
We want to see more literary texts studied and more essays written in the undergraduate years. We want to see M.A. courses that are thoroughly taught and examined before the students do research and write their theses with at least seven tomes per course and assignments turned in every fortnight so that it is only after one has passed all the taught courses that one can one write one’s M.A. thesis. We want to see to it that our Doctoral students also do to take taught courses, again with more than seven tomes per course that they pass before they are allowed to write their dissertations. 
How can one call oneself a scholar if one did not delve deeply into scholarship in his formative undergraduate years? How can one teach in a university if one did not broaden one’s outlook by taking postgraduate courses for postgraduate degrees? If one really wants to be a top-notch scholar, a reputable don, can one really succeed without rigorously studying the books by one’s peers, delve into them when they prepare articles for international conferences, or articles for referred journals? Simply put, my misgivings are that the intellectual base of most of our professors is shallow and not large. Thus they dare not attempt to send abstracts to conferences or referred journals.
With only Simon Gikandi (a graduate of the courses we had designed) to boast about, I can’t say the Literature Revolution of 1969 has lifted up the discipline called Literary Studies in East African Universities. 
We had also wanted the three main civilizations of Asia then – the Indian, the Chinese and the Japanese - to be studied, when there was/were staff. As far as the introduction of Japanese literature and language is concerned, Mr. Ikeda Daichaku – a man who was in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize back then – came to Nairobi, donated some books, gave a lecture, and invited President Daniel Arap Moi to go to his university, Soka Gakkai International. There followed a period of staff exchange. I do not know if the project established the study of Japanese language and literature on a permanent basis in Nairobi University or became an on and off exchange project. Yet I would have loved to have our students study haiku, the Japanese poetry of 17 syllables. And Noh drama. Besides, in the era of femininism can’t our women novelists learn the method of presenting the goings on in state houses from the female Japanese ministers’ wives who wrote about the goings on in their State Houses? Kenya, I think, is very fertile field for this. 
But, most certainly, the Chinese are doing much better now. Their Confucius Centre is a bee-hive of activities on the third floor of the College of Education Block. Good for them! I hope from introductory study of Chinese language they are delving into Chinese literature and related philosophy. After all Confucius was known more for philosophy than language use. The I Ching, and the poetry of Li Po and all those tales about dragons (read tsunami!) are pointers to how we could represent our dictators allegorically. 
The Indians, whose presence here is as old as the railway system, have been hesitant to have East African youth enlightened through the wisdoms of Indian sages. Though we taught Narayan’s Malgudi trilogy, and Raja Rao’s recreation of Mahatma Gandhi's impact on Indian villages and villagers, we would have wanted to study the Panchatantra and The Mahabharata too. For, the formulaic literary genre that magnified itself into the One Thousand Nights and a Night - in Arabic, to The Decameron in Italian, to The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer in English trace its genesis to Sanskritic India. Particularly the Panchatantra.
India’s drama is superb. Kalidasa’s plays gave rise to Bollywood, Bollywood gave birth to Nollywood and, perhaps, is giving birth to Riverwood right now before us in Nairobi.
Since India is known more for its religious depth, one would love to see Eastern African students taught the religious poetry in The Ramayana, The Dhammapada, and The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita (especially the Penguin translations of the last two) by the Catholic priest Juan Mascaro - and the introduction of foreigners to Indian philosophy by India’s first president, S. Radhakrishnan.
(When I was compiling Popular Culture of East Africa, Oral Literature, using materials contributed by my first year students from their cultural backgrounds, I received contributions from my Indian and Pakistani students. Unfortunately, an Indian wife to an English international publisher prevailed upon us to take those out. She thought Indians had no place in East Africa. Fortunately, some Indian(s) has/have now published a book of oral literature of the Indians of Kenya. Bravo!).
The Indians that the Europeans used to despise are now becoming rivaling threats, even to Hollywood. Yet they cling to their old culture, whereas my people from Kisumu hanker after suits and Christianity. Indians have had religions before Christ was born. Southern Indians, on top of using English, still use their ancient Indian languages and produce literatures in them that equal the products of three thousand years and more. Is it because we just quit wearing lao (animal hide) yesterday that we are so self-conscious of walking bare-chested? Yet Mahatma Gandhi won independence for India shirtless.
Taban lo Liyong University of Juba, South Sudan, 14th July 2009. 
In the second part of his letter, Taban lo Liyong draws widely on African theology, the works of his compatriots - among other references – in his discussion of the reasons why the literary revolution took place. The second part also gives us more insights into the leading lights of African literature.

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